College sports and academics: Reading level of student athletes

Recent research has questioned how prepared college athletes are in higher ed academics.

Recent research has questioned how prepared college athletes are in higher ed academics.

The revelation by University of North Carolina (UNC) whistleblower Mary Willingham that some college athletes read at a grade school level has received much attention. Willingham was a learning specialist in the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes at UNC. After conducting research on the literacy levels of athletes, she discovered that of 183 athletes in revenue-generating sports admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012, 8-10 percent were reading below a third-grade level, about 60 percent were reading between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. She also discovered that a tutor had written a paper for a football player. UNC has disavowed her, discredited her research, refused to conduct further investigation and suspended her research. Willingham has also received death threats.

UNC coach disputes Willingham

At UNC, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams disputed Willingham’s report. “We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our University with distinction,” said Williams in a statement, reported in “Williams, UNC dispute Willingham reading report,” by Dan Kane, Jane Stancill and Andrew Carter in the News & Observer, January 9, 2014.

Special treatment for athletes

There have been recent revelations of special treatment for student athletes from various colleges and universities, including:

• colleges with “special-talent policies” and students who are “alternatively admitted,” which apply to students who would not have been admitted on academics alone,

• teachers pressured to change grades for athletes who missed classes or assignments,

• teachers writing papers for student athletes,

• teachers who refuse to change grades or write papers are fired,

• courses that consist entirely of submitting one paper without attending any classes in order to keep athletes eligible for sports participation,

• athletes getting high grades in courses, but are later found to have taken remedial writing or reading,

• classes created especially for football or basketball players,

• teachers being paid for classes never taught.

CNN study of student athletes

In its investigation of such reports, CNN consulted experts in the field and submitted requests for information on student SAT scores and ACT entrance exam scores. “According to several academic experts, the threshold for being college literate is a score of 400 on the SAT critical reading or writing test. On the ACT, that threshold is 16,” reported Sara Ganim in the article, “CNN Analysis: Some college athletes play like adults, read like fifth-graders,” posted January 15, 2014. Of the nearly 40 public universities it contacted, it received data from only 21. Schools that did not provide information cited privacy concerns, said they don’t retain documents on SAT or ACT scores of athletes or never responded at all.

Of the schools that did respond to CNN’s survey, Oklahoma State University (OSU) is one institution that said it admitted athletes who scored below the academic threshold. The average SAT reading score of athletes at OSU was 440, while the average reading score of all incoming freshmen was 543. In a statement, OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said: “The NCAA change in admittance requirements has allowed lower test scores for some athletes. … But standardized tests are not the only gauge of a student athlete’s potential. Work ethic and background play a huge roll. We provide the support to help many of these students become successful.”

A solution to the problem

In her opinion piece “Postdocs for Jocks” for Slate.com posted on January 22, 2014, Rebecca Schuman suggested: “Why not create entire new academic departments, dedicated to tutoring and teaching student-athletes, funded by the athletics programs… To give each department a middling chance at legitimacy, they could be administered with outside reviewers…Many of these students are in desperate need of help, there are people desperate to give it, and for once the money could be wrangled. (UNC’s 2012 athletics revenue was about $82 million; hiring and housing four new well-paid academic staff would cost about $300,000.)”

Do you think student athletes get special treatment on campus? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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